THE PENTAGON As the U.S. military rapidly shifts gears to confront growing powers like China and Russia, it is reaching out to some old allies in new ways that potential adversaries may find quite uncomfortable.
In a series of large military exercises this month stretching from the Baltics to the Pacific, small powers such as Israel and Vietnam — rarely included in multinational drills led by the United States — are assuming new importance as Washington pulls friends closer in its strategic shift to great power competition.
The most notable inclusion is Israel, which is doing double duty as a new partner in Europe and the Pacific. The IDF is participating in RIMPAC, the world’s largest naval exercise off the coast of Hawaii, and Swift Response, a major ground exercise sweeping across Poland, Germany, Latvia, and Lithuania this month. In Europe, approximately 40 Israeli paratroopers will team with the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade in an operation to seize the Miroslawiec airfield in Poland, a U.S. Army spokesman told me. This is the first time the IDF is participating in a U.S. European Command exercise conducted outside of Israel.
Despite the unexpected deployment of IDF paratroopers to Eastern Europe, a U.S. Army Europe spokesman downplayed its importance. The Army “continuously trains with allies and partners throughout Europe to ensure our units are ready and able to work together should we ever be called upon to do so in a time of crisis,” the spokesman said.
American and Israeli forces certainly aren’t strangers. In March, the IDF and U.S. Army conducted the two-week Juniper Cobra exercise in Israel, with 2,000 Israeli Aerial Defense troops with at least 2,500 US troops running through a series of intensive air defense drills using each nations’ most state of the art defensive capabilities. Israeli and American officials made clear that US and Israeli forces would fight together in the future, should it be necessary.
The invitation by the Pentagon to team up with Israeli forces so far away from their usual stomping grounds in the Middle East comes at a time where the Trump administration is tightening the alliance between the two countries, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and offering unstinting praise and support for Israel amid international condemnation over the killing of dozens of unarmed Palestinian protesters — many aligned with Hamas — at the border between Gaza and Israel in recent weeks. (The sitting US ambassador to Israel has a long history of making substantial contributions to Israeli settlers before he took the job.)
Israel has also conducted several airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria this year, recently using the F-35 for the first time in combat to hit what it says were Iranian training bases and weapons depots. Israel has grown increasingly concerned by the presence of Iranian-backed militias on its northern flank, and has vowed not to let Tehran gain a permanent foothold in Syria.
In the Pacific, Israel’s participation in RIMPAC is part of the country’s “efforts to maintain and enhance its capabilities,” an IDF spokesperson told me, while declining to provide any more information about how large the IDF’s presence will be or if any actual ships will be involved. The U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet did not respond to several requests for information by press time.
Kicking off on June 27, RIMPAC is by far the world’s largest naval exercise, and this year’s month-long exercise will include forces from 26 nations, 47 surface ships, five submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel. In addition to Israel, this year will mark the first time Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Brazil will join the drills.
The growth of the exercise has been overshadowed by threats of a trade war between Washington and Beijing, and the Pentagon decision to rescind its invitation to China to participate. Chinese warships had participated in the last two RIMPAC exercises, but Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, a Defense Department spokesman, said kicking out Beijing was the result of China’s continuing militarization of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. “China’s behavior is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the RIMPAC exercise,” Logan said in a statement. “We have strong evidence that China has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic jammers to contested features in the Spratly Islands region of the South China Sea.”
But the U.S. Navy, looking to beef up forces in the Pacific while rushing to develop and field new long-range precision weapons to counter Chinese stand-off advantages in the South China Sea, is making sure to flex its own muscles at RIMPAC. This year will include a live firing of a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) from a U.S. Air Force aircraft, surface to ship missile launches by the Japan Ground Self Defense Force, and the use of a Naval Strike Missile from a launcher on the back of a Palletized Load System by the U.S. Army, as the ground service looks for ways to protect its logistics ships while getting in on the Navy’s concept of Distributed Lethality.
Last month, an Air Force B-1B fired two LRASMs successfully. The Lockheed Martin-made munition packs a 1,000-lb penetrator and blast-fragmentation warhead, an enhanced digital anti-jam GPS, and a multi-mode sensor/seeker to detect and destroy specific targets within a grouping of ships.
RIMPAC will overlap with President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean strongman Kim Jung-Un in Singapore, where the two — along with former NBA star Dennis Rodman — will engage in an historic meeting to curb the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Likewise, the Sabre Strike exercise overlaps with a major NATO meeting in Brussels this week and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual Q&A on live television, where he always makes provocative statements about the security of Europe and his relationship with Washington.
The U.S. Army Europe has said the exercises are “a demonstration of the commitment and solidarity of the Alliance” at the time when Russia’s military manoeuvres are increasingly worrying nearby NATO members, and are “not a provocation of Russia.”
But speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said he expects the defense ministers this week to approve two new NATO joint force commands — one in Norfolk, Virginia, to focus on Atlantic security and another in Ulm, Germany, for logistics inside Europe.
“I expect we will also agree on the NATO Readiness Initiative — the Four 30s,” Stoltenberg said. The ambitious program would ensure that by 2020, NATO allies would have 30 mechanized battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 combat vessels capable of deploying in 30 days or less.
“This is not about setting up or deploying new forces,” Stoltenberg said. “It is about boosting readiness of existing forces across each and every ally.”
We’ll see what Putin has to say.